Algebra worry for A level mathematics


Many teenagers are embarking on mathematics A level courses with an inadequate grasp of algebra – because they have been able to achieve a good grade at GCSE without mastering it.

A study carried out by the Cambridge Assessment exam board found that pupils are able to achieve A and B grades in mathematics GCSE with little algebraic understanding.

Schools then have to run catch-up classes in algebra before A level maths lessons begin – to compensate for gaps in students’ knowledge.

Mathematics teachers from 179 schools offering OCR’s mathematics exams were quizzed about whether GCSEs prepare pupils well for A level.

The teachers identified mathematical proof, unstructured problem-solving, familiarity with technology and algebraic fluency as areas where GCSEs do not prepare youngsters sufficiently well.

Asked which areas of mathematics would benefit from being taught in greater depth during the GCSE years, 61 per cent of teachers cited algebra.

“The GCSE exam requires very little understanding to gain the top grades,” said one teacher.

Another added: “You can now get a B with very little algebra. This is unacceptable.”

Eighty-six per cent said they were offering extra lessons to some or all of their students at the start of A level mathematics courses. 

The reforms to mathematics GCSEs, which will be implemented next September, include extra algebra, but it is not clear whether this will fully address the issue.

“The new content does not necessarily cover the entirety of the areas identified as problematic,” said the report’s authors, Nicky Rushton and Dr Frances Wilson.

The report was presented at the British Educational Research Association conference last week.


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